200px-The Sheik Poster 1921

The Sheik was a 1921 silent movie produced by Famous Players-Lasky, directed by George Melford and starring Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres and Adolphe Menjou. It was based on the bestselling romance novel The Sheik by Edith Maude Hull.


Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), part of the British ex-patriate community in Algiers, loathes the idea of marriage because she believes it means the end of independence for women. Against her boyfriend and brother's wishes she is making a month long journey into the desert alone. As they discuss her plans Diana notices a commotion going on at the next door casino and asks what is going on. She is told it is a party being thrown by a wealthy and important Sheik and no one but Arabs may enter. Annoyed at being told what to do, and curious as to what's going on, Diana borrows an Arabic dancer's costume and sneaks into the party.

At the party women are being gambled off like coins. Spotted an Arab tries to bring her to the front of the crowd but she resists causing much commotion. Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) takes notice and intervenes; realizing the woman is white. He realizes she is the woman he had spotted earlier as he entered and amused he sends her out of the party. After she leaves Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) tells the Sheik she is the woman he is to guide into the desert tomorrow. The Sheik hatches a plan; telling Mustapha to lead her to him and his caravan.

The next morning the Sheik sneaks into Diana's room and disables her gun as she is sleeping. She wakes almost catching him but he escapes into the garden. There he sings the first lines of Kashmiri Love Song which Diana hears. He then leaves.

Diana and her brother venture into the desert. At her insistance her brother finally leaves her side, she promising to see him in London next month. Once he is gone Mustapha sends the signal; and the Sheik's caravan attacks, capturing Diana. Diana is upset and tries to escape; but is unable to. The Sheik tells her to obey his orders; with her replying she is unused to taking orders. He tells her she will learn and demands she dresses like a woman (she had been in a pant suit) for dinner.

Diana reluctantly agrees. During dinner in the Sheik's sumptuous tent, Diana tries again to escape from the Sheik, this time into a raging sand storm. The Sheik runs after her, saving her from certain death, and tells her she will learn to love him. The Sheik is then told by a servant that the horses have escaped into the storm and he is forced to leave Diana. When he returns, he finds Diana alone in her sleeping quarters. The Sheik initially thinks of forcing himself upon her, but instead is moved to shame for his thoughts by her crying and her prayers.

Feeling bad for upsetting her the Sheik demands her every comfort be met and allows her some basic freedoms. A few days pass and the Sheik announces his friend is coming to visit him, a man from the Western world. Diana is dismayed at being seen in Arab dress to a Westerner. The Sheik tells his staff to return her western clothes to her; which he allows her to wear. Raoul St. Hubert (Adolphe Menjou) comes to visit, while Diana's spirit is nearly broken. He befriends her and reprimands the Sheik for his treatment of her. The Sheik feels badly, but refuses to change his mind. However after overhearing Diana's concern for him he realizes she may be warming up to him and is elated. He gives Diana her gun back, telling her he trusts her and to protect herself from the Caravan of Theives, who have been roaming around the area.

As Diana and her servant are out on a trip the Sheik and Raoul again discuss his treatment of her. The Sheik reveals he is in love with Diana; and Raoul convinces him to let her go. The Sheik reluctantly agrees and tells Raoul to take her back with him to France. Meanwhile Diana and the servant are resting on their journey; she drawing 'I love you Ahmed' in the sand. They are then attacked by the rival caravan and Diana is captured.

The Sheik recieves the news and goes to find out what happened. He sees Diana's message in the sand and realizes she loves him too. He gathers up his army and goes to attack the rival tribe.

In the rival tribe's village the Rival Sheik Omair (Walter Long) is trying to rape Diana. However after almost being killed by 'the Jealous one' (his first wife) he is unsuccessful as Sheik Ahmed and his army have fought their way into the village. After a long fight between the two Sheiks' Omair is dead and Ahmed is gravely injured.

Back in Ahmed's village the tribe waits outside for news on his condition. Raoul is nursing him back to heatlh when Diana enters. She is told he is sleeping; so she sits and holds his hand. She remarks to Raoul about the size of his hand being big for an Arab, to which Raoul replies that Ahmed is not a real Arab. His father was British and his mother Spanish. They died in the desert and the baby Ahmed was rescued by the ruling Sheik of the time. That Sheik raised him as his own and sent him to school in France. After his death Ahmed returned to rule as Sheik.

Ahmed wakes up and Diana confesses her love.


Fed up with Metro Pictures Valentino, without any consultation from his friends or lawyers, signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky. Jesse Lasky boasted on how cheap he had gotten Valentino for; for The Sheik Valentino recieved a salary of $1,250 a week...much less then many stars of the time.[1] Despite the paltry salary Lasky had personally sought a vehicle for Valentino's Famous Players debut; and on the advice of his secretary picked The Sheik.[1]

The Sheik shot the desert exterior scenes in Oxnard, CA; as well as the Guadalupe Dunes of Santa Barbra County. Each 'camp' covered nearly half a square mile of sand and had over 200 people 'living' there. All the extras wore yellow ochre for a brown face effect. [1]

The scenes of the tribes fighting were filmed at the Famous Players-Lasky Studio. The rival village was built on the backlot of the Studio at Selma St and Vine St. The palm trees used were later planted at the Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood. [1]

At the time of the release anti-miscegenation laws made it illegal for two races to marry. A kiss between a white woman and a man of color would not be allowed on film. The only way to make the Sheik's love of Diana 'acceptable' was to portray him as a European towards the end of the film.[1] Though the portrayl of Arabs is stereotypical; Valentino tried his best to distance the character from a stereotypical portrayal of an Arab man. Asked if Lady Diana would have fallen for a 'savage' in real life Valentino replied, "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world...the Arabs are dignified and keen brained."[2]

The rape scene was one of the film's most controvesial. In the novel Diana falls in love with the Sheik BECAUSE he raped her; and he softens to her because he has finally broken her.[1] In the movie the Sheik insinuates to Diana why he brought her there; and the audience later sees him kissing her forefully though any actual rape is not depicted. Once The Sheik returns to the tent from saving the horses he sees Diana crying; and sends her servant to comfort her. These scenes were racy enough to make the a morality board ban it in Kansas City.[1]


The Sheik premiered in Los Angeles on October 21, 1921. Critical reception was mixed with many critics feeling the toned down rape scene ruined the original message.[1] However it was a major success with audiences; smashing attendace records where it debuted. In its first week of release it set attendance records at two of New York's major theatres, the Rialto and the Rivoli. The New York Telegraph estimated that in the first few weeks 125,000 people had seen the film.[1]

Lasky declared the last week of November 'The Sheik Week' and had the film premiere at 250 theatres in the US on November 20, 1921. The film ran for 6 months in Sydney, Australia; as well as 42 weeks in at one theatre in France. [1] It was the first Valentino film to show in his native Italy.[1]

Within the first year alone the Sheik exceeded $1 million grosses.[1] The film cost $200,000 to make.[1]

Male AudiencesEdit

Male movie goers instantly loathed the Sheik; most refusing to see it or laughing out loud at the love scenes. Many men would walk out during the film. Many men felt threatened by Valentino's style of lovemaking; and blamed Valentino personally for the censored script and style of acting throughout the movie. Many called him effeminate for the long flowing robes of the character.[1]

An extended rant was led by 'Dick Dorgan' via Photoplay writing several articles denouncing Valentino. Dorgan accused Valentino of being exactly like Theda Bara and too pretty for a male. Dorgan even wrote a song against Valentino; calling it "A Song of Hate!".[1]

Female AudiencesEdit

Female movie goers could not get enough of Valentino. Women of all ages would scream, swoon, and faint at the screening. Francis Marion dubbed it The Shriek due to the female reaction.[1]

Cultural InfluenceEdit

The Sheik became the movie that defined Rudolph Valentino's career much to his annoyance.[1] The film was also the picture that propelled him into superstardom. Ironically the first releases had the title credits as, The Sheik...starring Agnes Ayres.[1]

The Sheik became so popular that the word became known as a 'young man on the prowl'. The object of a Sheik's desire was dubbed 'a Sheba'.[1]

The Sheik became widely copied over the years. Burning Sands, Tents of Allah, Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik, and Rex Ingram's The Arab which starred Ramon Navarro. The Shriek of Araby, and a Baby Peggy short Peg O' Movies spoofed the film. Much later Elvis Presley's film Harum Scarum drew from The Sheik as well.[1]

The popular song "The Sheik of Araby" was written for the novel; but popularized by the film. "Kashmiri Love Song" was also popularized once again by the film (having originally been released in 1902). Jimmy Buffet mentioned the Sheik in "Pencil Thin Mustache". Chapter one of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus is called "The Sheik," and contains a number of references to Valentino and his most famous film.

Serbian popular singer Dragana Šarić aka Bebi Dol had a hit song called Rudi dedicated to Valentino back in 1983. In the song he is referred as "the Sheik's son".


The Sheik has been rereleased several times over the years. Most noteably it saw rerelease in 1937 and 1938 worldwide. This release cut the rape scene due to the Hays Code. It was released by Paramount Video in 1987. On June 25, 2002 Image Entertainment released it on DVD along with The Son of the Sheik titled, The Sheik/The Son of the Sheik: Special Edition.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Leider, Emily W., Dark Lover: The life and death of Rudolph Valentino, p. 154
  2. Leider, Emily W., Dark Lover: The life and death of Rudolph Valentino, p. 172

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